What could be better than a warm, fluffy biscuit right out of the oven? Very, very few things, I imagine. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I have yet to replicate this much-fantasized-about scenario with anything other than Pillsbury pre-made biscuits. And, oh, I have made some efforts. In the last two months, I’ve made three attempts at homemade buttermilk biscuits. And while they seem to improve each time (flavorless hockey puck to flavorful hockey puck to more flavorful slighly less dense hockey puck), the results are still consistently hockey puck-like. I had always read that the laidback, little-of-this-little-of-that attitude most cooks take toward cooking cannot be applied to baking. And that made sense to me — baking relies on chemistry in a way that cooking does not. But it always seemed to me that my baked goods came out fine, even if the flour wasn’t always sifted or the butter always perfectly soft. Not so with biscuits. Biscuits, I have learned definitively, are persnickety. Maybe because they are a true example of something out of nothing (the ingredients are flour, lard, buttermilk, salt, and baking powder), they have to be treated with particular care. I have honestly never been so frustrated or so foiled by a cooking endeavor in my life.
A brief summary of my quest thus far:
The first time I tried should hardly count; the recipe was from an old Cracker Barrel cookbook I found at a used bookstore for $1 and bought just because. I should have known that wouldn’t work out for me. Not even worth talking about besides that. Miserable failure. Claire 0 – Biscuits 1.
The second time, I was much more hopeful. I had just gotten the January issue of Gourmet in the mail, a special Southern Cooking issue, with a mouthwatering cover photo of a pile of biscuits. The recipe is from Scott Peacock, a legendary Southern cook who worked with the even more legendary Southern cook Edna Lewis, known to many as the grand dame of Southern cooking. I didn’t have the White Lily flour that the recipe suggested, which is lighter than all-purpose; I didn’t have lard (or the adequate subsitute of vegetable shortening); I didn’t bother to make the homemade baking powder (a mix of cream of tartar and baking soda). I used all-purpose flour that I didn’t sift, butter, and pre-made baking powder. When the biscuits turned out like hockey pucks, I blamed myself. Claire 0 – Biscuits 2.
Today, I tried out Peacock’s recipe a second time. This time I was prepared, if not fully then at least better. I still couldn’t find White Lily, but I had bought cake flour instead, which is lighter than all-purpose. I didn’t have lard, but I had vegetable shortening. And I made my baking powder, following Peacock’s directions. I even sifted the flour. I was careful with my kneading and the handling of the dough. And still…basically a hockey puck, as you can see from the photo. Claire 0 – Biscuits 3.
I have decided that it is time to cut my losses and abandon Peacock’s recipe, but not to abandon this noble endeavor. Never fear, dear reader, I am determined. Together we will win the war on biscuits. Together we will get out of this biscuit quagmire. Even if it takes us 10,000 years.